Category Archives: News

Alexander von Humboldt

It is true: my great-great grandfather studied with Alexander von Humboldt. He was born in 1816 or 1817, making him a close contemporary of Karl Marx. We know that he and Marx corresponded later, as the letters have been conserved, but it occurs to me that they may have met first as students.

Humboldt was born in 1769 and was thus an 18th century person; people he met include but are of course hardly limited to Thomas Jefferson. Berlin in Humboldt’s time was a provincial town a quarter the size of Paris, and he never liked it. It is said that he was gay; look as well at this charming biography.

My ancestor remained in touch with Humboldt as well as Marx after finishing his studies and returning to Russia. He published on several topics, including the emancipation of people and second language pedagogy, in German.


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The MLA, and a diagnosis, and some fascinating questions

The theme of the 2016 MLA convention is Literature and Its Publics: Past, Present, and Future.

In the meantime, I am told there are two types of academic worker: intellectual knowledge workers and educational service workers. This is my problem: I am supposed to be the former, but pressed to be the latter. It is all well and good to say teaching and research go together. They do: for my McNair student, for instance. But when there are these two tiers of workers, and when the structure of the industrial complex is such that they pull against one another, and when one is both at once, one has a fraught situation to say the least.

In other news, my Russian family appears to have arrived in the United States in exactly 1865. Our ancestor was born in 1816 or 1817, and was living in Michigan at the time of the 1870 census. My great-grandfather was born in 1855, in St. Petersburg like his father the head immigrant, and studied at the University of Chicago; his wife, my great-grandmother, was Helen Beecher (yes, of those Beechers). My grandfather was born in Cook County, Illinois.

There are two points of interest on this today. One is these books: is the author our man (who did have a German PhD and corresponded with Marx, and was an intellectual)? Was it he who also knew Humboldt? (Why is my German not better, so I could find out more easily what his ideas were?) The other point is that there is a record I found and then lost, of a daughter born in St. Petersburg in the 1850s, after my great-grandfather, but baptized in Germany. That means that the sentence to Siberia and the flight toward Switzerland must have started then; I must write my cousin.

Family stories say that it was under Nicholas I that we were persecuted, and this is surely true, but it has to have been from Alexander II’s Russia that we flew.



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Jonathan Rees

I should read him more, and I should have seen this sooner.

To borrow some inflammatory language from Marc Bousquet, the second is a waste product of the first. If the MOOC providers are like meatpackers, then the flipped classroom is how they’re going to get us to eat their offal.

Now, we should look at this. I am quite sure Daphne Kollor is looking at the upcoming devastation of Louisiana universities with great anticipation.


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Michael Pollan

“The brain is a hierarchical system,” Carhart-Harris said. “The highest-level parts”—such as the default-mode network—“have an inhibitory influence on the lower-level parts, like emotion and memory.” He discovered that blood flow and electrical activity in the default-mode network dropped off precipitously under the influence of psychedelics, a finding that may help to explain the loss of the sense of self that volunteers reported. (The biggest dropoffs in default-mode-network activity correlated with volunteers’ reports of ego dissolution.) Just before Carhart-Harris published his results, in a 2012 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a researcher at Yale named Judson Brewer, who was using fMRI to study the brains of experienced meditators, noticed that their default-mode networks had also been quieted relative to those of novice meditators. It appears that, with the ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, all dissolve. These are hallmarks of the mystical experience.

In Carhart-Harris’s view, a steep price is paid for the achievement of order and ego in the adult mind. “We give up our emotional lability,” he told me, “our ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.” The sovereign ego can become a despot. This is perhaps most evident in depression, when the self turns on itself and uncontrollable introspection gradually shades out reality. In “The Entropic Brain,” a paper published last year in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Carhart-Harris cites research indicating that this debilitating state, sometimes called “heavy self-consciousness,” may be the result of a “hyperactive” default-mode network.


Regarding depression, which I appear to have, yet not have by “choice” as some think it is had, or as a permanent, organic problem, as do others, but as the result of an injury sustained in treatment for the effects of abuse and trauma and then treatment for the injury that did not heal it — this is a good description of it.

In Reeducation we were, precisely taught to turn the self on itself and substitute research and recreation time with self-destructive introspection. That created this debilitating state or “heavy self-consciousness.” If you suppress reason, as we were ordered to, but also repress intuition and try to follow instructions aimed at making you “functional” in a conventional way, then you do in fact place, and maintain the sovereign ego in a despotic position.

Be that as it may, the description above is good, and the article from whence it comes is fascinating.


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Sur la mauvaise volonté

El mal que aqueja nuestro departamento, según mi estudiante, c’est la mauvaise volonté. Laquelle? –ai-je demandé. Bien, a-t’il répondu: c’est le narcissisme d’un chef, et l’égoïsme de l’autre, que hacen que todos se odian y se agreden entre sí.

Es importante reconocer esto. Mi analista, el real, el de carne y hueso, dice que tengo yo dos identidades –la fuerte y la débil– y que debo asentarme mejor en la fuerte, así rapido acabamos.

Qué más quisiera yo. Pero es que el ambiente no apoya eso.



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MLA 2016

The abstract.

Reading Vallejo against the grain of identity

Taking as its point of departure not only the poetic subject in Vallejo as primordially fractured but the intimations in his prose works that like his contemporary Borges (“La nadería de la personalidad,” 1925) he eschewed the idea of a unified self, this presesentation will interrogate the biographical paradigms that have often been brought to bear on readings of Vallejo. Despite advances in scholarship in recent years, such paradigms still inform much of his critical tradition. How have expectations that Vallejo’s work perform Peruvian, Indian, or other identities in particular ways hamper its reading? What is gained by insisting on his mestizo roots, or by declaring his poetry mestizo? What effect has the emphasis on the meagreness of his Parisian circumstances and his allegedly mournful and martyred character had on the interpretation of his poetry? I will argue that it is useful to formulate alternative views of Vallejo not for purposes of better elucidating his work but so as to lift the interpretive shadow the traditional view of his personality has cast over his texts.

The paper strategy.

1. It is traditional to look at the author and certain (social, political, personal) themes–and to focus on the image. I am interested here in grammar and sound, and joy in language.

2. Many Latin American writers and critics give primary importance to the question of identity and construct a self through the incorporation of a non-European other, but the non-Western elements in Vallejo’s texts work differently. If we examine the possibilities here we may find that Vallejo’s corpus is more joyful than is commonly believed.

3. Hart’s biography is helpful for purposes of shaking off myths.

4. I should choose one poem to study in detail.



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Communist activity: black radical texts

This is a preliminary PDF, released for reading groups in Oakland and elsewhere, and not wide-release (the final version of the reader). It was a joint project of the Communist Research Cluster and Viewpoint Magazine. It is the rough draft of what will become volume 2 of the CRC series “Communist Interventions.” The first volume, on European socialism and communism, is available on the Communist Research Cluster website. It is quite a gold mine and it is interesting to realize that there are Communist study groups in the United States. I feel as though we were in the 1930s, perhaps.


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